Chapter 39-41: Comment by Wesley Raabe

In his 1895 memoir, William Dean Howells, one of the leading American writers of his era, recalls reading Stowe’s novel in his youth as it “came out week after week in the old National Era, and I broke my heart over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as every one else did.”[1] To the delight of readers as enthusiastic about Stowe’s work as the young Howells, publisher John P. Jewett in an Era advertisement on 11 March had promised that Stowe’s book “will be ready march 20” and available from the “principal booksellers in the United States.”[2] Doubtless many of the earliest copies of Jewett’s edition went into the hands of Era subscribers—impatient readers who chose not to wait a week, or two, and instead sought one of the 10,000 copies of the book that would be sold before Stowe’s story completed its serial run. To imagine the experience of such readers, those who read the ending in the Jewett edition before the serial installment arrived in the mail this week, the next, or the next can alert us to the complexities of reading Stowe’s work in multiple publication forms.

The readers who purchased a copy of the Jewett edition before the serial installment arrived no doubt quickly found their way to the top of page 273 in the second volume, where chapter 40 picked up from the 11 March installment. But for readers who knew the work as a series of weekly installments, the chapter number must have prompted some questions—because the Jewett edition’s “chapter 39,” entitled “The Martyr,” a chapter which had begun on 11 March, was numbered chapter 40 in the Era. In this 18 March installment, the serial reader would find the remainder of that chapter; chapter 40, “The Young Master”; and part of chapter 41, “An Authentic Ghost Story.” Perhaps some dedicated readers eventually figured how the chapters came to be renumbered, but many may have surrendered to the inevitability of misprints and errors or decided to trust the book as the more likely product of the author’s careful consideration. But if readers today consider closely this moment in the text’s publication history—when some members of Stowe’s audience had two versions of her text before them—we might recognize that the antislavery reader whom Stowe anticipates in the Era is somewhat different from the one whom she anticipates in the Jewett edition.

To consider the serial version of Stowe’s text in relation to the Jewett edition at a particular moment in time, between 18 March and 1 April 1852—with one version blending into another at some point in the experience of individual readers—is a simplification. Each reader was and is shaped by individual experience. But the 21st-century collective experience as readers of Stowe’s work, which has been shaped by reprints of the Jewett edition, can be usefully complicated when Stowe’s work is made unfamiliar by the recognition that the two version of Stowe’s text differ significantly in their wording. The interpretation of a literary work depends always on the documentary version of the text that the reader consults, and human and technological processes always alter literary works in the acts of transmitting them. If we become aware of how different versions of the work were altered during the publication processes, we can develop surmises about Stowe’s sense of audience for the different forms in which her work was read.

We can be reasonably confident that Stowe imagined that the Era serial reader was ideologically sympathetic to the antislavery cause. Readers of the Era would be aware of federal and state laws on slavery and of disputes over the significance and consequence of the Fugitive Slave Law. Furthermore, Stowe could assume her newspaper readers to be mostly from the Midwest (half), New York (third), with most of the remainder in New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and with some in the South—these geographical regions held the bulk of the Era’s subscribers.[3] But Stowe sought a broader audience with the Jewett edition: she appealed to the acknowledgment of the “noblest of minds and hearts” who are“involved” in Southern slavery in the preface for the Jewett edition—perhaps seeking some as her readers.[4] And she forwarded copies of the edition to prominent reformers in England: writers Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, and members of the British nobility including Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury; Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay; and George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle—all responded with letters that Stowe reprinted in the preface for Houghton and Osgood’s New Edition.[5] In acknowledgment of the more distant audience she hoped to acquire for the Jewett edition, Stowe might recognize that even if sympathetic to antislavery sentiment such international readers might have only a general sense of the details of Southern law familiar to the Era’s antislavery readers.

I think that the difference between Stowe’s expectations for the two types of audience—the Era’s antislavery reader versus the Jewett edition’s more diverse national and international reader that Stowe hoped to reach—provide a key to significant textual differences between this installment and the Jewett edition.[6] Below are two versions of the episode in which young George Shelby punches Simon Legree after he loads Tom’s body in preparation for burial, the first from the more familiar Jewett edition:

Then he turned, fixed his eyes on Legree, and said, with forced composure, “I have not, as yet, said to you what I think of this most atrocious affair;—this is not the time and place. But, sir, this innocent blood shall have justice. I will proclaim this murder. I will go to the very first magistrate, and expose you.”

“Do!” said Legree, snapping his fingers, scornfully. “I ’d like to see you doing it. Where you going to get witnesses? —how you going to prove it?—Come, now!”

George saw, at once, the force of this defiance. There was not a white person on the place; and, in all southern courts, the testimony of colored blood is nothing. He felt, at that moment, as if he could have rent the heavens with his heart’s indignant cry for justice; but in vain.

“After all, what a fuss, for a dead nigger!” said Legree.

The word was as a spark to a powder magazine. Prudence was never a cardinal virtue of the Kentucky boy. George turned, and, with one indignant blow, knocked Legree flat upon his face; and, as he stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake triumphing over the dragon. (282)

[Note: Omit one paragraph.]

In the Jewett edition young Shelby contains his anger while he makes the legal threat. Simon Legree mocks him with a somewhat ponderous explanation of the southern law on witness testimony, which prompts Shelby to lash out—after the young man in his own mind works through the consequences of Legree’s claim. His violence is a justifiable response to corrupt law, but imprudence is hardly to be condemned given the lack of alternatives. Now consider the alternative text from the Era serial.

[Note: Omit three paragraphs.]

“Such a fuss for a dead nigger!” said Legree.

The word was a spark to a powder magazine. Prudence was never a cardinal virtue of the Kentucky boy. George turned, and with one indignant blow knocked Legree flat upon his face; and as he stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake, triumphing over the dragon.

It was a most imprudent thing, George; but it is evident you do not care for that. You are far beyond prudence just now. (46)

Young Shelby lashes out without thinking. And Stowe does not enlist Legree to provide a ponderous explanation of slave law. Though the narrator chastises Shelby for acting out, she lessens the sting of her earlier condemnation of his imprudence. Rather than a rebuke, the remark could be read as ironic—an indulgent appreciation that someone has the courage to act out violently against injustice.

But Stowe is not in charge of the newspaper context. The editors of the Era by juxtaposition on the page facing this episode offer a searing comment on the contrast between the fictional devil Legree in Stowe’s work and the unfathomable evil of actual slaveholders. Recall Legree’s dismissive response to George Shelby’s offer of monetary compensation for Tom’s body: “I don’t sell dead niggers.” Readers of the Jewett edition would be unlikely to imagine that Legree’s principle acknowledges the humanity of slaveholders. But in the 18 March issue of the Era, it does, because on the facing page a description from a South Carolina newspaper on a recent slave auction is entitled “A Dead Man at Auction”:

The negroes averaged four hundred and ninety-nine dollars per head, although there were amongst them a large number of children, some at the breast, old men and old women, one or two superannuated, and one fellow deceased. (47)

The Era’s editorial commentary on the reprinted article emphasizes the lack of humanity among real-life slaveholders, but the story’s proximity to Uncle Tom’s Cabin comments as well on Stowe’s fictional slaveholder Legree. On the Era’s page, Stowe’s satanic slaveholder, who on some principle of morality chooses not to sell a slave as a dead body, is some inches from a nonfictional slaveholder who, on the principle of profit, does just that thing.

 

[1] William Dean Howells, My Literary Passions (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1895), 66.

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, National Era, March 11, 1852, 44.

[3] Stanley Harrold, Gamaliel Bailey and Antislavery Union (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1986), 139.

[4] Harriet Beecher Stowe, preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 2 vols., (Boston and Cleveland: John P. Jewett, 1852), vii.

[5] Harriet Beecher Stowe, preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, New ed., (Boston: Houghton & Osgood), xvii-xxiii.

[6] The remaining references to textual variants and alternate contexts draws from a poster available from Digital Humanities Quarterly. To acquire a better spatial sense of the position of these words on the pages of the original publication forms, consult “Over Uncle Tom’s Dead Body: Publication Context and Textual Variation in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s CabinDHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 3 no. 3 (2009), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000062/000062.html. Subsequent references to material published in facsimile on that poster are made with parenthetical page number references only.

 

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